Several people have asked how to grow, process and dye with woad.

Woad is a hardy biennial plant, native to northern Europe and the British Isles. It is the source of the blue dye chemical – indigotin.

It is very easy to grow. It is the first year’s leaves which are harvested for dyeing.

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The second year is when it flowers, it looks very pretty and the bees love it!

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The flower is short lived (about 3 – 4 weeks) and then it produces huge quantity of seeds.

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Woad seeds are sown in March or November, thinly spaced and just covering the seed with a fine layer of soil. Transplant them when large enough to handle. Woad prefers an alkaline soil so apply lime about a week or so before transplanting.

Woad planted in November is ready for harvesting from June/July and woad planted in March is ready from August until October.

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There are several recipes for extracting the woad pigment – the following is a method I use successfully each year.

I collect enough leaves to half fill a 30 litre plastic container, wash them carefully and roughly tear them into several pieces.

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I heat up in my Burco water boiler with rain water to 90 degrees Centigrade – enough to cover the leaves. You can work on a smaller scale following the same method.

When the water has reached temperature I pour it into the plastic container and cover the leaves, clip on the cover and allow it to steep until the water has cooled down.

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When the liquid reaches about 55 degrees centigrade I strain the leaves through a cheesecloth draped over a colander and compost the spent leaves.

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You now need to make the solution alkaline. I add ammonia to give me a pH reading of between 9 and 10. You can also use soda ash or washing soda to increase the pH. The liquid will turn to a green/brown colour. The vat now needs to be aerated. You can do this by using an electric or manual whisk for about 10 minutes. I use an aquarium aerator as I am working with a large volume of liquid – this saves me a great deal of time.

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Once oxidized I leave it undisturbed for a few hours, allowing the pigment to settle. I leave mine overnight and then syphon off about ¾ of the water with a hose trying not to disturb the pigment at the bottom the container.

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I then top the container up with fresh water and allow the pigment to settle at the bottom again. I repeat this process several times until the water above the sediment eventually stays clear. Finally, I syphon off most of the water leaving a small amount containing the pigment which I filter through a double layer of filter papers. This can take 24 hours or longer to complete by which time you are left with a beautiful dark blue sludge – your woad pigment!

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I then dry the paste by transferring it to Teflon woks and allowing it to dry over a period of days.

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When completely dry it peels away from the wok very easily and can be ground into a fine powder and stored until ready to use. I use a dedicated blender for this purpose but a pestle and mortar also works very well.

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1 gram of woad will dye approximately 20 grams of fibre

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Woad works on wool and cotton. Combined with the red of madder root, it produces purple and when overdyed with weld produces green.

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